Melanie Martinez Is Born Again and Bold as Ever on ‘Portals’
Singer, songwriter, and producer Melanie Martinez makes sleek, dark pop with a satiric edge and real emotional bite. Martinez debuted with her fantastic 2015 LP Cry Baby, a concept album about a young girl who gets kidnapped and eventually kills her captor that’s full of sparkling, self-aware tunes like “Pacify Her” and “Dollhouse.” She followed it with 2019’s K-12, as well as a feature film of the same name, building a devoted cult following in the process. Martinez has come a long way from being the hopeful teenager who made Christina Aguilera’s eyes roll when she competed on The Voice.
This February, Martinez got us ready for her next chapter by sharing a 30-second visual that showed a close-up of the words “RIP Cry Baby” etched into a giant mushroom surrounded by candles at a gravesite. It was a final goodbye to her beloved Lolita-like character. Now, with her new album Portals, Martinez is “back from the dead.”
She has found a new muse: a pink-skinned, four-eyed fairy creature that’s stuck between Earth and the afterlife. And she’s using that character to deliver her most introspective lyrics and sounds that move outside her sonic comfort zone. Musically, Martinez strays from the alt-pop sounds of her past to explore pop-rock songwriting, driving drum beats, and voice filters. “All of the songs on this album are based on past-life-regression therapy books I’ve been reading for a few years now,” she said of the record. “All of them disguised with earthly themes for double/triple meaning, to create a frequency for humans to relate to while still here on Earth.” When it comes to making ambitious concept records, there aren’t many artists in her class.
“Void” opens with an ethereal ambience, before Martinez’s sweet vocals arrive over a gritty, guitar-driven track as she reflects on her low self-esteem, merging the identity she’s invented for the album with her own real-life experience. “Like a priest behind confession walls, I judge myself/Kneeling on a metal grater,” she chants. “Light Shower” goes in the opposite direction, setting soft guitar strumming atop bare production. It’s a far cry from what we’d expect from Martinez, with lyrics that take an uncharacteristically optimistic and uncomplicated view of love: “All my anger, sadness, regret disappeared, it’s madness.” For fans mourning the Cry Baby era, there are songs like “Spider Web,” with its xylophone melody, that are reminiscent of Martinez’s musical origins, as well as darker moments like “The Contortionist,” with sound effects that literally sound like bones cracking and dramatic keyboards that recall K-12’s “Nurse’s Office.”
Part of the “past life regression” she promised with the LP arrives in songs like “Nymphology,” “Moon Cycle,” and “Evil,” which brazenly provide a new perspective on her past experience, specifically her relationship with alt-rocker Oliver Tree, who has referenced her in lyrics and has used an actress who looked like Martinez in a music video to mock her. On “Moon Cycle,” she sings jarringly crude lyrics about a man who demands sex with a woman who’s having her period (“Blood swimming turned him amphibious”), while lacing her lyrics with direct references to Tree’s music. And on the standout “Evil,” she elevates a searing synth-rock track with scathing lyrics: “Hope you never cope, hope you slip on soap/Crack your head like an egg, wanna see the yolk.” Ouch.
The LP ends with “Womb,” a metaphor for her own musical rebirth and that of her character’s, before the album loops back to repeat a phrase we heard at its start: “Life is death is life is death.” With Portals, Martinez delivers an effortlessly inventive, mature record that reintroduces her as an artist unafraid to start from scratch and tackle complex, difficult ideas. She isn’t hiding behind her baby-pink prosthetics. She’s letting us inside her world, and the story she tells is crystal clear.
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